The fight that killed

Courtesy of Classen Family

On Saturday night at The Theater at Madison Square Garden, a bell will ring and men will fight each other to determine who is the better physical being.

Sweat will flow, blood may be spilled, but in all likelihood no life will be lost.

If fate takes a cruel twist, if a fighter absorbs one too many blows and his faculties become compromised, he can be certain he'll be loaded into an ambulance and sped to a hospital, where he will receive copious medical attention. For that peace of mind, the fighters on Saturday night's card, which is headlined by a middleweight clash between Sergio Martinez and Matthew Macklin, can thank a man they've probably never heard of: Willie "Macho" Classen.

Classen died on Nov. 28, 1979, five days after absorbing some brutal shots at the hand of Wilford Scypion in a bout at the same venue, then called the Felt Forum. One could reduce Classen's legacy to a 16-7 record and a reputation as a tough nut to crack, a 29-year-old middleweight who could stay right in the thick of it with a world-class pugilist; but it would be more correct, and beneficial to those still aggrieved by his passing, to consider his death in a broader, elevated context. Willie Classen died so other men following his path didn't have to.

Classen was born on Sept. 16, 1950, in Puerto Rico. His grandfather fought as a pro under the name Kid Martin, but his career was curtailed when he suffered a blood clot after a bout. Kid Martin's health deteriorated and he died two years later. Little Willie was one of Guillermo and Alicia's two kids, along with older sister Anita.

When Willie and his sister were young, Alicia moved them to Spanish Harlem. He blew off school after third grade, and soon started boxing in Harlem youth clubs. At 15, Alicia moved to the Bronx, and there, Willie drifted to the streets. But the ring tugged harder. He won a Golden Gloves crown in 1970, and that same year had a daughter, Brenda, with Gloria Beniquez.

Willie tried his best to walk a straight line; he impressed visitors by changing Brenda's diapers, something of a rarity in that age. He flirted with street life but his fondness for boxing again prevailed. Gloria didn't care for the sport, but Willie was insistent. He told her boxing was his true love, and that he was more than willing to die in the ring.

Willie took up with other women, and soon Gloria split. Another baby, Willie Jr., was born to a different mother in December 1970. Willie turned pro two years later. The debut was fitting for a journeyman sort; he drew with Willie Taylor in a high school gym in Bayonne, N.J. Maybe fight-game insiders early in his run had him pegged as a stepping-stone type, a gatekeeper that a sharp prospect would need to better to prove he was worthy of being promoted to contender. But he didn't see himself that way; he loved to hear his nickname, "Machoooo," called out by the ring announcer, and he saw himself one day fighting for a crown.

Yet, when asked to step up, against an Eddie Gregory, or a Vinnie Curto, Classen would often clip the hurdle. The Gregory loss, combined with the death of his mom, sent him into a bit of a spin in 1974 and 1975, and he didn't do himself any favors with the way he treated his body.

Marco Minuto, an old friend who owned a pizza shop, became Classen's manager and helped him come out of his life slump. The boxer went 8-0-1 in 1977 and 1978, which earned him his highest-profile gig to date, a 10-rounder at the Garden against New York's Vito "The Mosquito" Antuofermo on Sept. 25, 1978, the main support bout to the Wilfred Benitez-Randy Shields scrap. Willie's chest puffed with pride to share the bill with Benitez, a jewel of a pugilist from Puerto Rico. No one said to his face that he was there to give some rounds to Antuofermo, who was in a holding pattern until terms for a title shot could be negotiated in some smoke-filled back room.

But the scrap went the distance, and Willie had high hopes as they went to the cards. He jumped into Minuto's arms and they both grinned in anticipation of the good news, the life-changing good news. The scores were read: 7 rounds to 3, 7 to 3, 6 to 4 … for the much better-connected Antuofermo. The crowd, Classen rooters aplenty, showed its displeasure. Bottles and chairs were thrown, guns were waved about, and the flames were fanned when a Team Classen member -- was it Willie? -- grabbed the mike and busted on the decision, yelling, "Viva Puerto Rico!"

"I got robbed," Willie said after. "They don't give black people no breaks in this place. You got to knock them dead or you don't win."

After that twist of fate, Classen didn't have the same optimism. "Titles are not made for guys like me," he'd carp. This was the start of a slide.

Classen lost his next outing, to Al Styles, three months later, and then grabbed a win against Jose Luis Duran on Dec. 2, 1978. But any hope of one more run toward the upper reaches of the rankings were dashed with a KO-8 loss to John LoCicero at the Felt Forum on April 6, 1979.

The streets, where they called Willie "champ," where kingpins could try to enlist him, with his rep and cred, beckoned again.

His New York license was revoked pending medical exams, but he wanted to fight on, and Minuto got him a last-minute scrap in London, against future world title challenger Tony Sibson. That fight was halted in Round 2, and people looking to assess blame later would wonder if the punishment Classen absorbed in the Sibson fight made him damaged goods going into the Scypion bout.

But stocking shelves at a Pathmark in the Bronx offered none of the purpose and none of the buzz. Willie, a grown man with a nickname to live up to, decided to fight on.

Minuto got him another scrap, this one against a guy who packed true venom in the mitts. Wilford Scypion, a Texan who'd knocked down 12 men who'd talked ill of his mom when he was in grade school, was being handled by the same guy, Mike Jones, who co-managed Long Islander Gerry Cooney. Willie was to be paid $1,500 for the 10-rounder at the Felt Forum. Those close to the game knew Classen wasn't the same man who'd been neck-and-neck with Antuofermo 15 months before. The fighter himself played down anything that might hinder his licensing. He was checked out by the ringside physicians who were on duty the fateful night, Drs. Richard Izquierdo and Roger Warner, and pronounced fit to fight.

The fight itself has seldom been seen since it was shown live on the MSG Network. You can't watch it on YouTube, which actually isn't unusual, since most televised ring deaths are not available on the video buffet channel. Willie Jr.'s wife, Suzan, has a DVD of the bout, which picks up right before the start of Round 3. You see a long shot of the ring, with Minuto, who was basically the chief second for the bout, waving a towel to cool down Classen, who's sitting on his stool on the unseasonably warm night. A bit into the third round, Scypion scores a knockdown, off a right to the side of the head.

"Scypion has Classen in a lot of trouble," says John Condon, calling the fight with featherweight prospect Davey Vasquez, noting that Classen has looked tired since the very first round. "His legs are gone completely," Condon says, with 20 ticks left in the round.

But Classen's pride, his fighting spirit, are by no means sapped. Classen rips a sharp left hook that throws Scypion, a busy banger with pop in both hands, off-stride. At the bell, Minuto, dressed in suit pants, a collared shirt and vest as if he'd just finished a shift at an accounting firm, runs into the ring, grabs Classen and ushers him to his stool. Mike Capriano and Al LaCava assist Minuto in the corner.

In the next round, Condon senses that Classen is close to being stopped, but Vasquez, who knows Classen from the local gym scene, pipes up.

"Willie's an unusual type fighter sometimes. When you least expect he can throw some bombs, so you can never really count him out. When you least expect it he comes through with something," the boxer-analyst says.

In the fifth, an uppercut buzzed Classen, to the point that the ropes held him up. Before the bell rings to start the sixth, Classen is on his feet, bouncing, looking reasonably energized. Vasquez, at the start of the sixth, mentions that Classen has lost something. And then Classen manages to unload left hooks that tell Scypion he's in no mood to fold.

"Willie's got all the desire he needs, as much as he has in his body," Condon says to start the round, "but it just doesn't seem to be enough, he doesn't seem to have the physical equipment to go with the desire." Vasquez offers that Classen is actually gaining confidence, knowing that he can find and hurt Scypion a bit. The seventh round is no lopsided session, as Scypion's launches have slowed down, and Classen is still slipping shots, still tagging Scypion.

To start the eighth, the TV duo both marvel that Classen is in the fight. By now, Classen is the aggressor, with the Texan looking to get time to breathe by moving more and minimizing exchanges. After the round, Minuto, in his office garb, fans the fighter with a towel. Before the bell to start the ninth, Scypion strides to center ring, ready to rumble. Did he cruise in the past couple of rounds? The Texan has more zip on his hooks and uppercuts than in the sixth, seventh and eighth. A right cross, from in close, and another, even harder, hurt Classen badly with 44 seconds left in the round. A third chopping right bends Classen over, and he looks like he'll topple. Scypion hesitates, to let his man drop, but "Macho" won't capitulate. An overhand right sends Classen back into the ropes. His butt is on the second strand, and he uses the rope for support. Scypion pauses, looks to ref Lew Eskin to make his presence felt. Eskin does, giving a standing eight count, which allows him to assess Classen. Eskin asks if he's OK, and Classen says he is. Twenty-four seconds remain in the ninth round.

Scypion moves in to finish, and Vasquez pipes up.

"He's hurt, he's hurt, John. They oughtta stop the fight," he says, while Scypion unloads. "He's a sitting duck right now, any kind of a good punch will do it," Condon answers. "One good punch will do it."

Classen returns fire, trying to land a right uppercut, but that misses, and Scypion won't be staved off. A right hand to the chin lands clean and Classen bends over at the waist, his eyes on the floor, his gloves covering not enough of his face and head. His back to the ropes, Scypion winds up and slams six unanswered shots on Classen, who is ducking for cover as the bell rings to end the round.

Classen straightens up, looking unsteady, and uses his left arm to steady himself on the top rope as Minuto helps him to his corner.

"He's out on his feet, John, he don't know where he's at," Vasquez says. Classen is slumped on his stool, and Eskin walks over to check on him, but not as carefully as one might hope. Eskin takes his eyes off Classen while he fills out his scorecard -- a practice that was subsequently abolished, so the ref could concentrate fully on a single task -- and then looks up to see one of the ringside physicians get onto the ring apron, to take a look at Classen.

If Eskin had done a more thorough Q&A, would he have sensed that the fighter wasn't all there? It may be immaterial, but some will always ask that question. During the court case that followed Classen's death, Izquierdo, who was also Classen's personal physician, testified that he examined Classen after the ninth-round assault and deemed him fit to fight on.

Vasquez weighed in during a replay of the blows that preceded the standing eight, saying, "His legs must be really strong to hold him up." Classen simply didn't want to be knocked down, and refused to quit on his stool after the grueling ninth. "No mas" was not in his lexicon.

"One round!" a fan can be heard yelling before the start of the 10th, to Classen.

"Go get him, Willie baby!" screams another booster.

The bell rings to start the 10th, but Willie stays on his stool. Four, five, six seconds pass before he stands up, and girds himself to meet Scypion, who is in center ring, wondering if his foe will answer the bell. That, Willie always did.

Scypion throws a left hook and then a clean right hand on Classen, who is just a few steps from his corner. Scypion fires another hard right on Classen, who is nearly limp, but still on his feet. Minuto hops into the ring while the second right is hurtling toward Willie, as Eskin is moving in to halt the fight. Classen falls through the ropes, on his behind, and is on his back, with his legs draped over the second rope. Twelve seconds have elapsed in the 10th, the final round of Classen's career. He looks dazed as he lifts his head up, while Scypion, through his sternest test as a pro, parades about the ring, unaware that his punches have been lethally effective.

While a cluster of concerned folks gather around Classen, Condon theorizes that Classen perhaps didn't want to come out for the round.

"I don't know if he wanted to come out, I think he was still asleep," Vasquez says. "They shoulda never let him outta the corner that last round."

Fairly quickly, it was determined that Classen was not in good shape. The call was put out for an ambulance, because back then it wasn't mandatory to have an ambulance present on site. After about 30 minutes, an AAU boxing official present at the card flagged down a passing ambulance on Eighth Avenue. The fighter was rushed to Bellevue, the closest hospital equipped for an emergency neurosurgery procedure. Within two hours, Classen underwent surgery, two and a half hours' worth, to remove a blood clot in his brain.

He never regained consciousness, and five days later, at 7:42 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 28, Willie Classen was pronounced dead, from a subdural hematoma.

The head of the New York State Athletic Commission, Jack Prenderville, didn't distinguish himself in the immediate aftermath. "Upon review of the commission staff reports and other information available to us, it is the opinion of the New York State Athletic Commission that the unfortunate incident … was handled promptly and capably by the staff," he said in a statement two days after the bout. "Unless there is information available that we are not aware of, it is the decision of this commission to terminate the review."

Incredibly, in February 1980, during a State Assembly hearing to discuss improving New York's boxing rules and regulations, Prenderville opposed a new rule mandating an ambulance be present on site for every bout.

"To tell some of the promoters that they have to have an ambulance -- which will cost $100 or $150 -- that could be his profit margin for that night," Prenderville said. "If it means driving promoters out by mandate, let's mandate that the state should pay the cost." He added that would add up to "literally hundreds of thousands of dollars -- and nobody is going to put up that kind of money."

Minuto drew considerable heat in the days following the tragic bout. One press account said he lifted Classen off his stool and pushed him from the corner into center ring. Inspection reveals that he did no such thing, that Classen arose of his own volition and that nobody pushed him toward Scypion. Minuto's not around to defend himself, having died in 2008. His widow, Lucille, tells ESPN New York that her husband's conscience was clear in the years following his friend Willie's death.

"He took it very hard," said Lucille, Marco's childhood sweetheart and wife of 42 years. "It was a turning point in his life. He was always involved in doing things the right way. If it was totally up to Marco, Willie would not have been fighting [at the end]." She says Marco went to the commission at one point, probably after the Sibson fight, and lobbied for them to not re-license Willie. Lucille says Willie protested, saying that he had a family to feed, that he couldn't stop fighting.

"Can you blame the death on Marco? Absolutely not," she said. "Marco tried to give him guidance but he was a grown man."

Joe Bruno disagrees, to put it mildly. He was one of the judges on Nov. 23, 1979, at the Felt Forum, and he thinks Minuto should have done more to keep Classen from fighting. "The person to blame was Classen's manager, Marco Minuto," Bruno said. "He surely knew Classen was KO'd in England by Sibson, and Classen never should have been licensed to fight in New York State. A good manager doesn't risk his fighter's heath like that. Besides, Classen was on the way down and Scypion, a great puncher, was on the way up."

For those wanting to lay blame on the head matchmaker, the late Gil Clancy, Bruno says that's not fair. "Because of the way things were in 1979, there wasn't any real communication between states, let alone countries," he said. "Gil told me he didn't know about the Sibson fight and I believed him."

The ringside physicians, of course, were placed under a microscope. "I take the responsibility for letting the fight continue," Izquierdo said, before adding an aside that he shared blame with Minuto. "His manager never said a word to me. To give you an honest answer, there was so much noise, my concern was with the fighter. I wouldn't have sent the kid out if he hadn't been coherent." Warner stated in court that he was a urologist by trade, had no formal training in medicine specifically pertaining to the fight game. He maintained that he was getting ready to examine Classen after the ninth round, but was blocked by Classen's cornermen and camera operators, so Izquierdo instead sized up Classen.

The blame game went on in earnest as lawsuits were filed. By 1981, Willie's wife Marilyn filed a $500 million suit against Madison Square Garden, ref Lew Eskin and four doctors, including Izquierdo and Warner, as well as a $250,000 suit against the city and its medical examiner for allegedly bungling the fighter's autopsy. In 1987, Marilyn settled for a six-figure sum, with the final judgment citing Izquierdo and Warner and Madison Square Garden. A judge had ruled shortly before the settlement that a case against the two ringside physicians could proceed to trial to decide if there was negligence.

Immediately after Classen's death, there was a stampede to enact stricter rules and regulations. As always, as time passed, the urgency faded. But on July 17, 1981, Gov. Hugh Carey signed a bill which made it mandatory for a boxing promoter to have an ambulance present during a fight card. Also, a requirement was enacted to compel the State Athletic Commission's Medical Advisory Board to develop medical education programs for all fight-game personnel and review the credentials and performance of all commission physicians. A rule stating that a fighter must make it out of his own corner, unaided, of his own volition, the so-called "Classen Rule," was also added to the rule book.

Since then, no one has died in the ring at the Garden. But boxing stayed in the crosshairs for several years, especially after South Korean boxer Duk-Koo Kim died from a brain injury four days after his Nov. 13, 1982, fight with Ray Mancini in Las Vegas.

Remorse, sadness and guilt still ripple, decades on. ESPN New York tracked down Scypion, who retired from the ring in 1991 with a 32-9 record. He finished with 24 KOs, most accumulated before the Classen fight. Scypion struggled mightily to put the Classen death behind him.

"You've got to live with it," he'd tell people. "You've got to put it out of your mind." Easier said than done.

In 1983, he secured a world title shot against Marvin Hagler but was knocked out in Round 4. Scypion today lives in Port Arthur, Texas. He is 53 years old, suffers from dementia and Parkinson's disease, and would be a ward of the state if not for Mary Wiltz, his younger sister. Wiltz says that Scypion started showing symptoms about eight or nine years ago. She says that sadness and guilt from the Classen fight drove her brother to drink and use drugs to blot out the pain. Through his haze, the pain still eats at him. At least three or four times a week, he will reference the fateful night.

"I killed a man in the ring," he'll say. "Willie Classen was his name. The ref should've stopped the fight."

Michael Woods is the editor of TheSweetScience.com.